Sunday, 27 December 2009

Bollywood B Movie

NE India......

We crossed into West Bengal in India via the small border crossing at Naksalbari and headed East towards Assam.
Being one of the poorest states in India there is obviously a lot of poverty, rife throughout a lot of India. Even with a growing middle class, largely due a successful IT and call centre industry, the existence of the cast system prevents people from bridging the gap between the haves and have not’s. The cast you are born to is denoted by your surname with everyone from the same cast having the same name and level of employment, making it virtually impossible to escape the poverty trap.
The Indian government is currently trying to abolish the cast system but it will take time. It certainly makes you appreciate how lucky you are to come from a country where if you work hard enough you can achieve anything you want.

Geographically, Assam is a flat plain split down it’s length by the huge Brahmapura River, bordered by Bhutan to the North, Meghalaya and Bangladesh to the South and the hill states of Arunuchal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura to the East.

The word Assam when mentioned evokes images of vast tea plantations with fields full of headscarf wearing tea pickers. Less known, is it’s other major cash crop, rice. It’s also home to some of the friendliest and most curious people in India.

Tea Plantation

After a good 300k’s drive we decided to stop, as the dark descended, at a small town called Ranjia, about 60k’s from our planned destination of Tezpur.
Arriving in town, we were lead across the train tracks by a helpful moped rider to a nice place on the edge of town, this was a regular occurrence in India. It really takes the pain out of circling a town trying to find a bed for the night especially in non-tourist towns that rarely appear in the travellers bible, The Lonely Planet.
This was to start a crazy 2 days where we were interviewed twice by national TV and 4 times by national newspapers in 3 different towns.

In Assam, to our surprise, we had taken on celebrity status. Everywhere we stopped we would draw crowds of hundreds, all wanting to take a look at the strange foreigners on even stranger looking bikes.

The usual Crowds

Getting to the hotel we discovered no off street parking. After negotiating with the hotel owner, we were told that we could put the bikes in the hotel.
Backing up the now large crowd, I gunned the throttle and popped up the steps through the hotel doors.
As I parked the bike I heard a crack from behind me. Going out to take a look, Herbie was on the top step with a cracked and broken marble tile from the top step in his hand, oops. His centre stand had hooked under the top tile and ripped it away, breaking his centre stand in the process.
We were both now use to regular visits to the welders, it was something that could be easily and cheaply fixed at a later date.

Mobbed in Ranjia

The morning came with a couple of quick interviews for the national news channel and a newspaper.
While speaking to a local we were told that we were the only foreign tourists ever to visit the town, this explained the massive crowd both in and outside the hotel. I had almost expected people to be waiting outside our hotel room in the morning.

Very funny.

The crowds were something we had certainly got use to but this had surpassed anything we’d experienced previously.

We quickly knocked off the 60k ride to Tezpur.

Upon entering the town we headed for the hotel and parked up. I went in to negotiate the room rate and on coming back out found Herbie being interview for a different news channel. They’d spotted us coming into town and had followed on mopeds. We agreed a full interview in a couple of hours time after we’d had a chance to shower and clean ourselves up. We were starting to become minor celebs in Assam.

Any excuse for a photo opportunity

It was time to head to the hill state of Arunuchal Pradesh and it‘s capital Itanagar, one of our main objectives of NE India. The plan was to do a loop through the hill tribe regions and then head back into Assam before making our way slowly towards Bangladesh.

Due to the fact the state had experienced civil unrest and an on-going dispute with China over border demarkation we required a special permit to visit the region, easily obtained via email from an agent living in Itanagar. In fact it had only been re-opened the previous year so we didn’t expect to see too many tourists during our time there.

Arunuchal Pradesh….

When travelling by bike, there are days travel when you heart simply soars with passion for what you are doing, this was definitely one of those moments….

Passing through the police checkpoint, the empty road led us almost immediately into a beautiful mountainous landscape covered in thick water soaked jungle of more shades of green than it is possible to imagine, simple stunning. I had a feeling that Arunuchal Pradesh was going to be a very special experience and very different to anything we had seen on the trip so far..

Road to Itanagar

A night stop over in Itanagar led to another newspaper interview and a chance meeting with a great guy call Bob who worked for the local council. He invited us round his house for some food and we spent the night drinking beer and recounting stories of our travels.

Bob and his brother


Globetrotters make N-E their new home

From icy Switzerland to the rugged Karakoram highlands of Turkmenistan to tribal Northeast India, their five-month-long arduous journey may seem as daunting a task that many would quiver to embark on. But not for Russell Cleasby, 40, and Herbert Meier, 41, two globetrotters with a common dream, who have made the world their home.
Little wonder that the two, who rode through Arunachal Pradesh last week as part of their global tour, admitted to having taken a fancy to the taste of momos in the Northeast.
“It is a great place with wonderful people and lovely food, specially the momos,” said Meier, a former project manager with a construction company. He hails from Zug, a town in Switzerland.
Meier set out on his tour on August 23 last year and travelled through Slovakia, Austria, Romania and Bulgaria until he met Cleasby, a Briton on a tour on his bike, at Tajikistan in July this year. Soon they became intimate friends and decided to continue their journey together. Cleasby, who hails from Darlington in northeast England, had worked as a software engineer in an IT company but quit his job to follow his dreams.
“We’re crazy guys with a penchant for globetrotting on bikes. We decided to follow our hearts by quitting our lucrative jobs and spending some years travelling on our bikes,” Meier added.
What impressed the duo was the diverse culture of India, its temples, bearded monks and people of different hues residing amicably in the country.
“Our Indian sojourn is special to us. It has been a great experience to travel through the crowded roads in the big cities and along meandering dusty village paths. The variety of Indian food, right from mattar paneer to pao bhaji is awesome. But we specially liked the momos in the Northeast,” Meier said in Itanagar.
The daredevil duo later left for Bangladesh via Guwahati.

We spent the next 2 days travelling via Ziro on a loop through small villages down lovely winding roads to a village on the outskirst of Daporijo, where we had 2 days break from riding, eating the local delicacy Mitton and chatting with a German couple we’d met on the road who were travelling round India in an old jeep.

On the Road

Village life....

BBQ by the River

The local delicacy Mitton is a very strange animal indeed, like a tougher version of beef but much more tasty. Thought to be a cross between domestic cattle and a wild Tibetan buffalo it lives a semi-domesticated life both in the jungle and at the village of it’s owner. The animal forages freely in the jungle and then only returns to it’s owners house to be fed salt before heading back to the jungle. Nobody knows why the Mitton has a taste for eating salt, possibly it helps remove the toxins from it’s body after eating berries and other plants in the jungle in the same way that creatures visit salt licks in the Amazon.

Any new calf is trained to return by being re-strained while it’s mother heads off to feed. The mother then returns at the end of each day to feed the calf milk. After 4 or 5 days of restraint and salt feeding the calf is released with the mother and the cycle continues.

Mitton being Fed Salt by it's Owner

Back to Assam…..

Road to Assam

I woke up the next day with a hole punched in my back tyre, presumably from a sharp stone in the road. The tyre was so run down that it had almost become a racing slick. By a complete stroke of luck I’d found a new rear in Kathmandu and there was a tyre change garage across the road from the hotel. 30 minutes later we were back on the road and heading for the ferry to the South bank of the Brahmaputra River.

The short road to the ferry crossed among other things some very deep sand. On one sandy descent Herbie hit a large pile of sand which threw him off. On re-starting, his kickstart broke and sprung back punching a hole in his engine casing. We limped to the ferry with oil pouring out of Herbie’s bike, he urgently needed a good mechanic in Dibrugarh on the other side of the river. It had been quite a morning.

'Ferry Crossing'

With Herbie’s bike fixed with some Indian ingenuity and some metal poxy we headed off to Kaziranga National Park, home to 80% of the worlds one horned rhino….

We’d heard from a guy we met on the ferry that the East side of the N.P was the most beautiful, with the least visitors and biggest concentration of wildlife. With the east having no accommodation we planned to stay in the central area, take an elephant ride in the morning and then take the bikes over to the East and do a late afternoon jeep ride around the park, that way we would get the best of both worlds.

Early Morning Elephant Ride

I must admit the jeep ride was absolutely stunning with herds of wild forest elephants, boar, eagles, buffalo, rhinos and the Siberian duck which makes an incredible migration every year across the Himalaya from it’s summer home in Russia. The terrain is a mix of jungle, rivers, waterholes and tall grasslands.

We knew we were going to be in for a treat, within 5 minutes of entering the park…

Turning a corner we came across 2 male rhinos fighting, presumably over a female. On seeing us, one of the rhinos turned and charged the jeep with blood running down it’s side. A warning shot into the air from a park ranger was enough to spooked the animal into changing it’s course and running off into the bushes.
Very exciting.

Park Rangers on bikes!

Tiger Scratching Post

Wild Beast on the Loose

Eastern Kaziranga N.P


The state of Meghalaya occupies a 2000 meter plateau wedged between Assam and the lowlands of Bangladesh creating a very unique climate.
Officially the wettest place on Earth, Mawsynram in the south of the state gets over 20 metres of rainfall each year.

As with all other states in the NE each has it’s own distinct cultural identity. Unusually for India the tribal groups in Meghalaya are predominantly matriarchal with the wealth and decision making of each family passing down through the female line. This was certainly obvious while walking round the state capital, Shillong. Couples openly holding hands and kissing in public, unheard of in the rest of India.

Road to Shillong

Shillong is home to the most bizarre and unique forms of gambling. Legalised a few years ago the Archery Stakes are akin to the Shillong national lottery with people placing bets as far away as Calcutta on the twice daily event.

Held in a small field on the outskirts of town, 1500 arrows are fired at a cylindrical bamboo target for 4 minutes by up to 20 archers. Bets are place on numbers between 1 and 100 with the winning number coming from the last 2 digits of the count of successful arrows, receiving odds of 80:1 on the bet placed.
As last of the big spenders, I’d bet $1 on 68. The count came in at 864 with 64 being the winning number, so close yet so far. I could have been a very rich man.

The Archery Stakes

The people of India have to be some of the most unique people on this planet. Loud, colourful, curious, a little bit crazy and always friendly, they have a zest for life seen in very few other places on this planet. They also have a kind of innocence that really endears you to them. I have to say I really loved the people of India.

Road to the Border

Time to move on to our last country in the Subcontinent, Bangladesh……..

1 comment:

Ian said...

'Soon they became intimate friends'

Something to tell us Russ?